“What Exactly Belongs to the Emperor?”
Rev. Mark M. Vickers
Sunday, October 22, 2017
St. Timothy’s UMC - Jamestown, NC
Matthew 22:15-22New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Question about Paying Taxes
15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16 So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21 They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
We have been inundated over the past several months, and really over the past several years, about what does belong to “Caesar” or our government. We have trifled with the notions and bills that indicate to us that tax issues, cuts, reforms will make our life in “Caesar’s World” more complete. Give or take which week it is we are squandered about which move is right. We live in a perplexed “Caesar’s World.”
I am using the term “Caesar’s World” in order to demonstrate the fact that we live in a land governed by rulers we elect and put into power. We live in a democracy; a government that functions on economic terms with a system of checks and balances. We do not live under a dictator or a monarch, or any other type of government. But, there is a common theme between these styles and that is money! Whether it is taxes or a stipend, or allotment, money has much of the pull in determining what takes place.
As we read our story in the Gospel of Matthew this morning we cannot help but keep our mind focused on money, tax money for that matter. This story lends itself to the all pre-conceived notion that “here we go again, Christians talking about money.”
An Anglican priest friend of mine tells the story of the man whose dog died and he went to the Anglican priest in town and asked him to perform the funeral for the dog. The priest replied we don’t do funerals for animals. Maybe you should try the Baptist Church or maybe even the Pentecostal Church in town. The man, somewhat dejected, turned and started to walk away. The priest, curious as he was, yelled out to his friend, “how much stipend were you thinking about paying for your dog’s funeral?”
To which the owner replied, “somewhere in the neighborhood of $500-$600.00.”
The priest quickly jumped to his feet and said, “you didn’t tell me your dog was Anglican.”
You see, the church often runs the risk of talking about money to the point that we “miss the mark” as often is the case in this story today.
Here again we must do our background research. The two groups or parties that are opposing Jesus at this time are the Pharisees and the Herodians. Two groups that would not have spoken with one another if the world was about to end.
The Pharisees, devout Jews, sworn enemies against the Romans were adamantly opposed to paying taxes to Caesar. The Herodians were the branch of Herod’s Roman rule and were all about paying and benefiting from taxes. They were the beneficiaries of taxed wealth and this money and power allowed them to rule over the Jews. They were the ones to initiate the question to Jesus, “Is it right to pay the tax to Caesar or not?”
Now understand, this was not just an income tax, but also a “poll tax” – a tax that was imposed on the head of each household, no matter what they made financially. This was a huge hit on many families.
The Jews were ultimately against this taxation because the Roman coin had an engraved image of Caesar and named him “the son of god.” Quite contrary to one of the 10 Commandments I’m sure. Now we have to understand that there were two coins used in these transactions. This very high valued and special coin, and then the copper coin used for daily transactions. The special engraved coin was the coin of contention.
Thus, our dilemma for Jesus grows. You see, Jesus had a large following among the pious Jews, so if he said yes, he would risk losing that following. If he said no, the Herodians would have him brought up on a charges of sedition. Thus, eliminating Jesus from circulation.
We then find ourself at the old adage, “What Would Jesus Do? WWJD?” Here, Jesus is clever and smart. He asks for the coin used to pay taxes. After examining the coin and the graven image, he says, “Render unto Caesar’s the things that are Caesars and to God the things that are of God.” (Matt. 22:21)
As we still stand in awe and wonder of what Jesus said, I want to offer what I believe the point of this story may be.
First, Jesus is telling people to pay Caesar what is due, not just anything, but what is due! Then the tell tale comment to both sides, the Jewish and the Roman side, “Render (give unto) God what is God’s!” For you see, I believe Jesus was concerned with the welfare of the state, but more concerned that we, as disciples, give everything to God as disciples! You see for Jesus and his time, the fight between “cultic gods” and Yahweh was very much like it is today. We struggle with what to enhance our allegiance toward.
I believe we can, as Christians, be good citizens in a secular society provided what that society asks of us does not diminish our commitment to Christ.
Dr. Michael Green in his commentary on this passage has a statement that I believe “seals the deal” for me on this passage, he says, “The coin bore Caesar’s image: give it back to him. You bear God’s image: so give yourself totally back to him.”
My friends, in this frail and fractured world, in this world with moments of joy and celebration, come, give yourself back to God at the feast of His table.
AMEN & AMEN.